Crain’s Editorial: Back to Basics

The hype around the hyperloop, at least as a passenger-focused technology, is pretty much dead. And it offers some lessons about getting carried away with the possibilities of the new rather than improving on what we already have.

Virgin Hyperloop – one of the leading companies developing the technology, which in theory reduces the energy needs of high-speed trains by placing them in vacuum-sealed tubes where air resistance is minimal – recently laid off near the half of its staff as the company shifts its focus from passenger transport to freight forwarding.

The Financial Times, which published the story of more than 110 layoffs at Virgin Hyperloop, reported that ongoing global supply chain issues and COVID are contributing to change. But tech-focused website The Verge noted that Virgin Hyperloop, like many companies trying to bring experimental technology to life, is “struggling to attract funding and talent, and to meet deadlines.” In 2017, the company expected to see working hyperloops in the world by 2020. The goal then was 2021. It’s 2022 and there are no working hyperloops in the world.

None of this means the hyperloop is dead as a passenger concept. Other companies are working on the technology. But this is not a good sign, at least in the short term.

Not too long ago, local officials were talking about the potential benefits of the hyperloop for northeast Ohio.

In December 2019, for example, Northeast Ohio’s Regional Coordinating Agency, NOACA, released preliminary results of a $1.3 million feasibility analysis for a Cleveland-Chicago- Pittsburgh. The projection was that the line would boost local jobs, incomes, property values ​​and economic activity while eliminating up to 143 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.

There were, however, many reasons to wonder whether the technology was ready for use in passenger environments. So far, the evidence is that this is not the case.

We’re not here to bury the hyperloop, or feasibility studies for it, in hindsight. It is useful, however, to think about the attention and resources that are devoted to something like the hyperloop when existing systems – in this case, trains and public transport – receive far less attention.

How could things be any different for transit systems, in Cleveland and elsewhere, if they attracted the level of interest in innovation that has been accorded to hyperloop technology?

Public transit has struggled during the pandemic. Ridership on the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority and other systems continued to decline as health concerns and the changing nature of work schedules prevented some people from using the trains and buses they normally could use to get to work. For RTA, a burst of traditional winter since mid-January has proven difficult to keep those trains and buses on time. It looks like we need more feasibility studies to keep transit efficient through the worst of winter.

RTA and other systems are getting new help with federal money. We hope and anticipate that there are opportunities for transit innovation that will help bring some riders back. The state of the world is perilous these days, and with it the price of gas and other prices are rising even faster than they have in recent months. It’s a good time for public transit to pick up its pace.

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